In Partnership with 74

Charter schools win renewals after promising to detail their plans for English learners

Mike Szymanski | November 16, 2016

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George McKenna questions charter schools’ low scores at Tuesday’s board meeting.

Nine out of nine charter schools were approved for renewals and revisions Tuesday night. But school board members took all of them to task for some of their test scores and other benchmarks that fell below LA Unified district norms.

School board member Richard Vladovic rattled off low scores or graduation rates, or high suspension rates, from all of the schools up for their five-year charter renewals but paid particular attention to reclassification rates for English language learners. Vladovic, who sits on an ad hoc committee for special education and English learners, then questioned why the schools were being approved for renewal. He did note that reclassification rates at the three KIPP schools up for renewal topped the district average, meeting LA Unified’s goal of 20 percent, something the district has yet to reach, Vladovic said.

“I’m particularly concerned about students who are English learners because if they don’t get reclassified by the time they are in high school, their chance of graduating is poor to none,” Vladovic said after the meeting. “We don’t like these scores in our district schools, so why should we tolerate them with charters?”

Richard Vladovic asks for English Learner reclassification plans.

Richard Vladovic asks for English learner reclassification plans.

Vladovic and the other board members agreed to renew eight of the schools on a consent agenda if they would each send a report to the district by the end of December detailing their plans for reducing the number of students who have been designated English learners for more than six years. The schools agreed to do so.

This month, the district’s Charter Schools Division recommended approval for all charter petitions, in contrast to last month, when it recommended non-renewal for some charter schools and the board voted to deny five petitions. Board members routinely vote against staff recommendations. This time, at least in one case, the school board questioned why the charter division was recommending renewing a charter school when its scores were consistently low. The Los Angeles Leadership Academy was asking for its third renewal, for 550 students in grades 6 to 12. The school is on two private locations in Lincoln Heights.

“This school has been in existence since 2002 and we gave two five-year renewals,” board member George McKenna said. “They have 91 percent Latino students and have had several benchmarks before and not met them. They have had zero percent EL reclassifications. We frown on schools that have less than 10 percent, and this has zero.”

McKenna also pointed out that the math scores and graduation rate were lower than the district’s average and the suspension rates were higher.

“I’m just concerned if this is acceptable,” McKenna said. “I know we are comparing charter schools to LAUSD and seeing if they do better, but we aren’t doing so swell either. They’re doing worse than underperforming schools. So what is the benefit of going to a charter school?”

José Cole-Gutiérrez, director of the district’s Charter Schools Division, which monitors the charters authorized by LA Unified, said, “We grappled with the same issues and it was a close call for us.” He noted that he and his staff had visited Los Angeles Leadership Academy again that morning.

Even though the school’s test scores declined in the past two years in math and English, Cole-Gutiérrez pointed out that his team compared improvements made over the past two years to resident schools in the area.

In 2014-2015, 43 percent of Leadership’s students met or exceeded English Language Arts standards, compared to the resident schools’ 40 percent, while in math, 17 percent of the charter school’s students met or exceeded standards compared to 14 percent at the resident schools. In 2015-2016, 40 percent of Leadership’s students met or exceeded English standards, compared to 38 percent at the resident schools, and 13 percent exceeded math standards, compared to 17 percent at resident schools.

“We considered other data and other improvements in making our recommendation for renewal,” said Cole-Gutiérrez, noting changes in leadership, including new principals. “We told the school it was a close call.”

Another plus for the school was their bilingual program with a “difficult population that was encouraging,” said charter division administrative coordinator Robert Perry.

Board member Scott Schmerelson said he often yields to the charter division’s recommendations, and he gave extra credit to smaller “mom and pop” charter schools like Leadership.

School board President Steve Zimmer said he was concerned about the scores but said, “We take this very seriously. We are deeply concerned about the outcomes and the school climate and concerned about enrollment and also concerned about how that school feels when we walk onto that campus and other factors.”

Zimmer added, “This is a tough vote for us. This is not what is supposed to happen in charters. We have very high authorizing standards, and we should because we are the single largest authorizer in the nation. I defy anyone to tell us we shouldn’t, and this is a very tough decision.”

Zimmer noted at the beginning of the meeting that he had planned to vote against the renewal but changed his mind in a spirit of cooperation in the wake of the turmoil of the past week.

Board member Mónica García noted there are not many charter schools in that area and added, “I see Leadership invested in this neighborhood and they are part of the solution. I represent a lot of struggling schools and they are not satisfied with these scores. I see them as very good partners.”

Leadership’s executive director, Arina Goldring-Ravin, said, “We will continue to work on our schools, this is a team.”

Ultimately, Vladovic and McKenna were the only two to vote against renewing the charter for another five years.

“I can’t support this,” said Vladovic. “I am worried about the 60 of the 538 students who have been designated as English learners for more than six years. I think they are being shortchanged, and I can’t support this.”

Vladovic later said after the meeting that he teased fellow board member Ref Rodriguez, who serves on the English learner committee with him. “I told Ref that he should be ashamed for voting to renew this school with their record so low.”

Six charter schools are scheduled for renewal next month.

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